Researchers Discover New Extinct Species of Mini Penguins That Lived 3 Million Years Ago

This Newly Discovered Miniature Penguin Species Lived 50 Million Years Ago

What Eudyptula wilsonae may have looked like, darn cute! (Photo: Simone Giovanardi)

Penguins are survivors. Modern species of the adorable birds withstand freezing temperatures or dive deep in swift currents. In fact, penguins have been doing their adorable thing for millions of years. Prehistoric penguin species date back to the days of the dinosaurs. A team of researchers in New Zealand have discovered one more member of the ancient family, a tiny and distinctly precious species newly known as Eudyptula wilsonae. Its name means Wilson’s little penguin. Explained in their recent paper, the researchers detail how the examination of several small fossilized skulls led to the classification of this cute critter who lived 50 million years ago.

The two fossils were discovered on New Zealand's North Island. Only the skulls are extant, and they are slightly narrower than those of modern little penguins (korora) which currently frolic along the island’s coasts. From the one juvenile and one adult skull, the researchers determined it was a new species. They likely stood just about a foot tall and weighed a measly 2 pounds, much like their modern analogs. In fact, the new species may be a late Pliocene ancestor of the modern birds.

“This is important when thinking about the origins of these penguins, the evolution of the seabird diversity of Aotearoa and the dynamic environment in which they live,” co-author Daniel Thomas said in a statement. “For one thing, the climate has changed a lot over this time, and this lineage has been robust to those changes.” In fact, recent warming has resulted in new challenges for modern little penguins—many starved to death in 2022 as fish moved to cooler waters beyond the diving abilities of the penguins.

Ancient penguins’ ability to survive when temperatures were warmer in their own time might have modern applications. “With millions of years of environmental change now being compressed into just a few human lifetimes, rising temperatures are enabling tropical animals to expand their ranges, leading to potentially irrevocable changes in wildlife communities in Aotearoa and other higher-latitude locations,” Thomas told NZ Herald. As cute as these fossilized miniature penguins are, the modern variety needs humans to look beyond their sweet nature to recognize the complexity of their survival.

These 3-million-year-old fossilized penguins are the oldest miniature penguins discovered, and they may be ancestors to modern little penguins.

This Newly Discovered Miniature Penguin Species Lived 50 Million Years Ago

The miniature penguin skulls. (Photo: Thomas et al.)

This Newly Discovered Miniature Penguin Species Lived 50 Million Years Ago

The bird head fossils. (Photo: Thomas et al.)

h/t: [Smithsonian Magazine]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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